Everyone take a deep breath.
That Game 1 loss was a doozy. It felt like the Heat beat the Celtics at their own game and were the more imposing and physical team.
The Al Horford situation is brutal timing, yes. Robert Williams and Marcus Smart still aren’t 100 percent. The Derrick White news comes at an inopportune time (how dare he skip the game for happiest moment of his life?) but is more than understandable. The Celtics are shorthanded, but that won’t deter them in the slightest.
“Things happen in life,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We want them to be there for their families in those situations.”
Even with all those uncontrollable factors, the Celtics still have a prime opportunity to win Game 2 and ultimately win the series. Here are five things they need to do better to prevail Thursday night.
They need to take care of the ball.
It’s no secret that Jaylen Brown’s handle needs some work, but in Game 1, it was Jayson Tatum who coughed it up more than Brown. He turned it over seven times and often looked out of sorts.
The difficult part is that the Heat are extremely deep and can throw a variety of looks at Tatum and Brown. P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are all elite defenders, and their team defense is so strong that average-to-below-average defenders such as Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Tyler Herro look above-average.
It’s hard to play at your pace when a team tries to speed you up, but it’s not impossible. Valuing the ball would go a long way in Game 2 and beyond.
They need to be more physical with Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy likes physicality. Jimmy is a bully. Jimmy will end your season. Seinfeld jokes aside, all those things are true, but 18 free throw attempts is still way too many.
Give Butler a tremendous amount of credit. He was outstanding in Game 1, with 41 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. He’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he played a similar role in this game.
So how do the Celtics stop him? Well, they need to frustrate him and get in his way. Likely having Smart back will help immensely, but it can’t fall all on him. Tatum, Brown and Grant Williams have to make him know they’re there. Butler is playing at an elite level, but he’s not Antetokounmpo. The Celtics have outlasted several stars already in the playoffs, and there’s no reason they can’t impose their will against another.
“He’s very comfortable right now,” Brown said of Butler. “We’ve got to do a better job of breaking that rhythm.”
They need to respect Miami’s shooters.
At the same time, they can’t forget about Vincent, Strus, Caleb Martin and Co. Strus, in particular, is one confident dude. Yes, yes, he would be a perfect Celtic. It’s no secret, but he’s also not Ray Allen. The Celtics need to get in his face and make him a driver.
Butler and Herro are the focal points offensively, but the Heat rely on their off-ball movement to generate looks for shooters as well. Everyone is a threat and their ball movement is crisp, so the Celtics can’t neglect their perimeter players like they did in Game 1.
“Uncharacteristic of us to give up 118 points,” Brown said. “We can do better.”
They need to not get outscored by 25 in the third quarter.
But seriously, for whatever reason, the Celtics have really struggled in the third. They tend to respond in the fourth, but against a team like Miami, it’s not easy to claw all the way back. They might be the toughest team to come back against in the NBA.
It’s easy to sit here and say the Celtics need to be better in the third, but they know it themselves. Now they simply have to do it and not let the Heat snatch momentum so convincingly. If they lose their identity briefly, they can't let the damage escalate.
“It was just plain and simple,” Robert Williams said. “They out-toughed us. We had a terrible third.”
Tatum: "Throughout the course of the playoffs we've done a great job responding to runs. ... But for whatever reason we didn't today." Tatum said he will take the blame. Said he needs to be better in those moments and looks forward to responding better next game.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) May 18, 2022
Aaron Nesmith needs to shoot with confidence.
Aaron Nesmith has been waiting for this opportunity for months. He showed flashes and provided his usual dose of hustle in Game 1, but he shouldn’t be afraid to let it fly moving forward.
Even if he misses shots, the Celtics need him to be a threat and attempt more than three. They’re incredibly thin without White and potentially Horford, and Nesmith should have a chance to contribute once again. It’s hard to come in cold in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now that he has a game under him, it’s fair to expect more on the offensive end.
The same could be said of the Celtics as a whole, as they try to find their mojo and move one significant step closer to the NBA Finals.